Lisa Doyle: Why Britain can no longer ignore global refugee crisis

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WE are living in a time when more people have been forced to flee their homes than at any time since World War Two. Around the world, nearly 60 million people have been forcibly displaced and about 20 million people have crossed into other countries and become refugees.

This global refugee crisis is in part being fuelled by events in the Middle East, with Syrians becoming the biggest refugee population in a generation.

In Britain, we have long been shielded from this growing crisis but we can no longer pretend it’s someone else’s problem. It’s time we did more to help.

Developing countries shoulder responsibility for protecting most of the world’s refugees, with the majority of people simply moving from one poor country to another.

The vast majority of Syria’s refugees are hosted by its neighbouring countries: Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan, Egypt and Iraq.

This situation is simply unsustainable. For too long, the developed world has looked the other way despite the deadly evidence beginning to appear on our own doorstep as refugees flee for their lives across the Mediterranean in a desperate attempt to escape the killing zones.

Instead of taking meaningful action, British politicians, headed by Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond, have responded by speaking appallingly of “swarms” of people coming across the Mediterranean on their way to Britain in search of a “better life”.

Such dehumanising and dangerously inaccurate rhetoric is used to justify our Government’s attempts to introduce harsh new domestic measures, including the roll out of “right to rent” checks and a crackdown on the already meagre amount of support given to asylum seekers in this country.

Such a response is a blatant attempt to disguise the Government’s failure to respond to this humanitarian crisis compassionately and it must be challenged.

The UN’s Refugee Agency has characterised the situation in the Mediterranean as a refugee crisis and it is right to do so: Syrians are the largest group making the deadly journey across the Mediterranean Sea to Europe.

But they are not the only refugees boarding unseaworthy boats in the hope of making it to our shores.

Afghans, Eritreans and Somalis, amongst others, travel alongside them. We know what horrors these people are fleeing. We’ve seen the bombs exploding on our television screens; we’ve seen the bodies of children lying lifeless on the ground. These people need protection.

A popular myth, frequently articulated but rarely challenged, is that huge numbers of people are specifically on their way to Britain; a view completely unsupported by the facts.

The reality is that our Government makes it as difficult as possible for refugees fleeing atrocities to seek safety in Britain, and as a result, comparatively very few asylum seekers make it to our shores. So far this year, there have been over 200,000 people arriving in Europe via the Mediterranean Sea. Yet Britain has received just four per cent of asylum claims made across the EU during the same period. If anything, we’re not pulling our weight.

At the moment, there are very few legal routes for refugees to the UK or other European countries.

The UK does not offer an “asylum visa” and when war breaks out and people begin fleeing a country like Syria, other types of visas, such as student or visitor visas, will be refused if the authorities believe there is an intention to claim asylum upon arrival.

That’s why refugees are forced to place their lives in smugglers’ hands. Europe’s hostile immigration policies leave them with no other choice. European leaders must acknowledge this crisis is largely of their own making and should respond by looking to make meaningful commitments to share responsibility for protecting a greater number of the world’s refugees.

This could be through radically increasing the number of resettlement places on offer, but also through creating more routes to safety for refugees.

Another way we could do this would be to make it easier for refugees to reunite with their relatives in the UK.

Under current rules, refugees are only allowed to bring their husband or wife and dependant children under the age of 18. Even those that fit our narrow definition of family often face long delays living apart, with usually the women and children surviving in desperate conditions while they wait for a decision.

Or still worse, they are refused because they cannot provide the right documentation. If you had bombs raining down on your house, would you think to pick up your marriage certificate?

This crisis isn’t unmanageable. Addressing it merely requires political will, and the acknowledgement that we must do more to help.

With peace and stability in short supply across the world, we cannot respond by turning our backs and pulling up the drawbridge. It’s time Britain lived up to its proud tradition of protecting refugees.

Dr Lisa Doyle is head of advocacy at the Refugee Council.